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Our Revolutionary Some Thoughts 
Heritage on the Meaning 

of the 

American Revolution 


Henry Steele Commager 

The generation that won independence and 
launched the new United States had a spe- 
cial conception of history, and of America's 
place in history. They were familiar enough 
with the past, and with the "lessons" of 
history that came out of the past. But they 
did not believe that America was bound by 
that past or subject to those lessons. It was, 
they thought, the special glory of America 
that it should launch a new era in history, 
that it should embark upon a series of ex- 
periments which had no precedent in the 
past, but which would provide models for 
the future. Here in this New World — which 
was in a sense a new Eden — man was to 
have a second chance. Here it would be 
possible to discover whether man was ca- 
pable of governing himself, whether he 
could achieve equality, emancipate himself 
from tyranny and superstition, and create 
a civilization not only materially rich but 
morally and intellectually rich. For here, in 
the most favorable environment ever vouch- 
safed mankind, men could work out their 
destinies free from those ancient tyrannies 
that had plagued them from the beginning 
of recorded history: the tyranny of the Des- 

pot, the Priest, the Soldier, the tyranny of 
ignorance and poverty and war. Here, for 
the first time, it might be possible to show 
what man was really capable of. 

Washington and Franklin, Jefferson and Tom 
Paine, and their co-revolutionaries believed 
that the American people had a Heaven-sent 
opportunity to triumph over the past and 
to mold the future. That was what Washing- 
ton meant when he wrote that "the Founda- 
tion of our Empire was not laid in the 
gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, 
but at an Epocha when the Rights of Man- 
kind were better understood and more clear- 
ly defined than at any former period." That 
is what Jefferson meant when he wrote of 
America that "this whole chapter in the 
history of man is new. The great extent 
of our territory is new. The mighty wave 
of public opinion which has rolled over it 
is new." That is what the French philos- 
opher-statesman Turgot meant when he 
wrote of the Americans that "this people 
is the hope of the human race." Perhaps 
Tom Paine put it better than any one else: 
the American, he said, "is a new Adam 
in a new Paradise." 

All the auspices were favorable — all but the 
hateful institution of Negro slavery, and most 
of the Founding Fathers were confident that 
it was on the way out. There was land 
enough, as Jefferson said, "for our descend- 
ants to the thousandth and thousandth 
generation," and .there was a benign gov- 
ernment which — it is Jefferson again — "did 
not take from the mouth of labor the bread 
it has earned." Americans enjoyed immunity 
from the sanguinary wars of the Old World 
and could look forward— so they thought — 
to centuries of peace. They enjoyed reli- 
gious freedom, and freedom from those reli- 

glous antipathies that had made a shambles 
of so many Old World societies. They were 
an enlightened people, with the highest 
standards of literacy anywhere on the globe; 
they cherished science and education, and 
made the benefits of both available to the 
whole of society. Thanks to a century and 
a half of self-government in town meetings 
and county courts, they were more mature 
politically than any other people, and more 
creative too. 

It is that creativity, particularly in the poli- 
tical arena, that is most impressive. It is no 
exaggeration to say that the generation of 
the Founding Fathers was politically the 
most creative of any in modern history. For 
the Americans proved themselves able to 
do what the statesmen or philosophers of 
the Old World would not do: translate prin- 
ciples into institutions. 

Consider the principles set forth so elo- 
quently in the Declaration of Independence: 
That all men are created equal; 
That they are endowed with "unalienable 

That these rights embrace life, liberty, and 
the pursuit of happiness; 
That it is to secure these rights that gov- 
ernments are instituted among men; 
That governments so instituted derive their 
just powers from the consent of the gov- 

That when government becomes destructive 
of these ends, men may "alter or abolish it"; 
That men have the right to institute new 
governments designed to "effect their safety 
and happiness." 

The Founding Fathers did not invent these 
principles; they did something more impor- 
tant, they put them into practice, and institu- 







tionallzed them. John Adams put it most 
succinctly: "they realized the theories of 
the wisest writers." 

The first task was to create a Nation, for 
without that nothing else could be achieved. 
We take nationalism for granted, but should 
not. Americans, after all, were the first peo- 
ple in history deliberately to "bring forth" 
a new Nation: all others had been the prod- 
ucts of centuries of history. And Americans 
made a Nation out of the most disparate 
elements — 13 States, each asserting its sov- 
ereignty, and a people widely scattered over 
an immense territory, without the common 
denominators of a monarch, a ruling class, 
or an Established Church. As John Adams 
put it, the Founding Fathers "made thirteen 
clocks to strike as one — a perfection of 
mechanism which no artist had ever before 
effected." They also provided for a method 
by which the Nation could grow territorially 
without reproducing the Empires of the Old 
World. The new Nation inherited — or wrest- 
ed from Britain — the vast territory west to 
the Mississippi. In the eyes of history these 
lands constituted colonies. But Americans 
would have nothing to do with colonies or 
colonialism. By a stroke of genius they 
solved that ancient problem of colonialism 
— a problem which continued to harass the 
Old World nations down to our own time — 
by the simple device of transforming those 
"colonies" into States equal in every respect 
to the original 13 States. Thus the United 
States was able to grow from 13 to 50 States 
with less trouble than Britain had with 
Ireland alone. 

The United States was born the largest na- 
tion in the Western world: how organize a 
territory so vast? This problem was solved 
not by creating a powerful centralized state 

— which would have been wholly unaccept- 
able in that generation — but by creating a 
federal union. Men had been talking about 
federalism for over 2,000 years, but they had 
never succeeded in creating a state truly 
federalized. The Founding Fathers solved 
the problem of federalism by what now 
seems like a very simple device: recogniz- 
ing the people as sovereign and providing 
a mechanism whereby they could allocate 
the exercise of their sovereign powers 
among governments, assigning those of a 
general nature to the national government 
and those of a local nature to the State 
governments. This division broke down in 
1861, but was reestablished — with important 
modifications — after the Civil War, and is 
still with us. The United States remains the 
oldest Federal Union in the world, and its 
version of federalism has spread widely 
throughout the world. 

Even while the Revolutionary generation was 
establishing the firm foundations of nation- 
alism and federalism it was turning the great 
principles of the Declaration of Independ- 
ence into practices and institutions. Con- 
sider the principle that governments "de- 
rive" their powers from the consent of the 
governed. All very well in theory, but how 
translate that theory into practice? No peo- 
ple had ever done so before. The Founding 
Fathers solved this problem with one of the 
great inventions in the history of politics: 
the constitutional convention, the most fun- 
damental of all democratic institutions. The 
constitutional convention is the sovereign 
people, organized for political action. It 
alone has the right to alter or abolish gov- 
ernment and to institute new governments. 
State constitutional conventions have been 
doing this with some regularity for two 
centuries. There has never been a second 


Federal constitutional convention, but the 
Framers provided for the continuous mod- 
ernization of the Constitution through the 
process of constitutional amendments: even 
now, 187 years after the original convention, 
the people, through their State legislatures, 
are voting on an amendment that provides 
equal rights for women. 

Turn to the second great principle: that all 
government is limited. It is a principle im- 
plicit in the whole of the Declaration: that 
there were limits to the power of govern- 
ment, and that what George III and Parlia- 
ment were doing was contrary to fundamen- 
tal law. The principle was an ancient one, 
but so far no people had ever been able to 
impose limits on their kings or their govern- 
ments. The history of government — as Amer- 
icans read it (and not incorrectly) — had 
been an unbroken record of tyranny, and as 
they looked across the Atlantic at France 
and Prussia and Russia and even Britain 
they could see that tyranny still flourished 
everywhere in the western world. 

This problem, too, the Founding Fathers 
solved, first in the States and then in the 
Federal Government. What a plethora of 
devices for limiting government!: first the 
written constitution itself, then separation 
of powers, annual or frequent elections, the 
distribution of powers among State and 
Federal governments, and on top of all this, 
elaborate Bills of Rights setting forth the 
boundaries of constitutional governments. 
Within a few years there was added to this 
network of limitations one that was distinc- 
tively American: the practice of judicial re- 

We take for granted limitations imposed by 
people upon their rulers, and so, too, limita- 

tlons imposed by majorities upon dissident 
or recalcitrant minorities. What was — and is 
— remarkable is the spectacle of a people 
imposing limitations upon themselves, even 
of majorities imposing limitations upon 
themselves. That requires a degree of moral 
and political sophistication rare in human 
experience. Yet that is precisely what 
Americans of the Revolutionary era con- 
trived and — perhaps even more surprising — 
what Americans of subsequent generations 
have accepted. The United States is one of 
the few democracies in the world that volun- 
tarily imposes limits upon the exercise of 
democracy. Elsewhere in the western world 
the majority will is conclusive; in the United 
States it is subject to fundamental principles 
of constitutionalism and law, principles that 
are assumed to embody natural rights or — 
to revert to the phrase of the Declaration — 
the laws of Nature and Nature's God. 

It was more difficult to give life and body 
to the abstract principles of the Declaration 
than to contrive the constitutional mecha- 
nisms, and we must confess that the fulfill- 
ment of this achievement still eludes us. 
What shall we say of the assertion that "all 
men are created equal?" That was one prin- 
ciple that was not translated into reality at 
the time, and that has not yet been fully 
realized. But it was, after all, the Enlighten- 
ment that laid down the principle in all sin- 
cerity. When Jefferson wrote that "all men 
are created equal," he meant it in a quite 
literal sense. He meant that in the eyes of 
Nature all men are born equal. The inequali- 
ties of color, race, sex, class, wealth, even 
of talents, do not derive from birth or from 
Nature, but from society. Jefferson, and 
many of the signers of the Declaration, were 
lifelong opponents of slavery, and Jefferson 
himself contributed more to its eradication 

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wd etatj, am4 fornix 

than any other man of his time. And, as with 
so much of the Declaration, the words 
"created equal" came to have a life of their 
own. They became, in the end, not so much 
descriptive as prophetic. For, as Lincoln 
said in 1857, the Fathers "meant to set us a 
standard for a free society which should be 
familiar to all and revered by all; constantly 
looked to, constantly labored for, and even 
though never perfectly attained, constantly 
approximated and thereby constantly 
spreading and deepening its influence and 
augmenting the happiness and value of life 
to all people of all colors everywhere." The 
long delay in giving even an approximation 
of equality to Negroes and minority groups 
was — and is — the great American tragedy. 

"Pursuit of happiness" is a more elusive 
phrase. The idea that God and Nature in- 
tended that men should be happy was a 
commonplace of 18th-century thought. In 
the Old World, however, happiness tended 
to be an elitist concept, something that the 
upper classes might enjoy through the cul- 
tivation of art and music and learning and 
the social graces. But as America had no 
upper classes, happiness here was sup- 
posed to be available to all who were free, 
and it consisted not in the enjoyment of the 
arts or philosophy, but in material well-be- 
ing: milk and meat on the table and bread 
baking in the oven, a well-built house and a 
well-filled barn, schooling for children, 
freedom from the tyranny of the State or the 
Church or the military, freedom to move to 
any State, to work at any job, to marry any 
man or woman, to worship in any church. 
After almost two centuries most Americans 
still think of happiness in these terms. 

Philosophically and practically, the new 
principles, practices, and institutions ap- 

peared to work. The principle that men 
make government and can unmake it en- 
couraged not ceaseless political upheavals 
but, on the whole, order and tranquility in 
political life; there have been many re- 
visions of State constitutions but the changes 
are insignificant; there has been no funda- 
mental change in the national constitution, 
only amendment. The principle that govern- 
ment is limited did not make for political 
impotence: on the contrary, the political ma- 
chinery has functioned well most of the 
time — which is as much as can be said of 
the political machinery of most nations. The 
principle of the separation of Church and 
State did not lead to a decline in religion or 
a breakdown in morals; the churches flour- 
ished, and moral standards were about the 
same as in countries with established 
churches. The principle of the supremacy of 
the civil to the military, and so too of open- 
ness in government, was faithfully observed 
(up to our own time, anyway) without any 
danger to the safety of the Republic. The 
greatest mixture of peoples and languages 
in modern national history went into the 
melting pot. That melting pot did not melt 
everyone down to a uniform product by any 
means, but the American people — the white 
people anyway — achieved about as much 
unity as did the peoples of most Old World 
nations. The break-up of the Union in 1861 
did not come as a result of ethnic differ- 
ences in the white population, and it is 
relevant to note that in the end it was the 
Union — which had the greatest ethnic 
heterogeneity— that triumphed and not the 
Confederacy, which boasted ethnic homo- 

The Revolution itself contributed richly to 
the nourishment of that sense of unity. It 
proved, indeed, a veritable cornucopia of 

heroic deeds, noble characters, and elo- 
quent rhetoric; it provided a kind of instant 
historical past. There was Captain Parker at 
Lexington Common: "if they mean to have a 
war let it begin here," and the Minute Men at 
Concord Bridge firing the shot heard 'round 
the world. There was Prescott at Bunker Hill 
(really Breed's): "don't fire until you see the 
whites of their eyes." There was Ethan Allen 
before Ticonderoga, invoking the aid of the 
Great Jehovah and the Continental Con- 
gress. There was Nathan Hale at the foot of 
the gallows regretting that he had but one 
life to lose for his country. There was the 
flamboyant John Paul Jones, closing with 
the Serapis: "I have not yet begun to fight." 
There was Tom Paine writing the Crisis 
papers on a drum head by the flickering 
light of camp fires: "These are the times that 
try men's souls." There was Mad Anthony 
Wayne storming Stony Point, and George 
Rogers Clark wading through the swollen 
waters of the Wabash to capture Vincennes 
and Daniel Morgan smashing Tarleton at 
Cowpens. Above all there was Washington — 
Washington taking command under the fam- 
ous elm in Cambridge, Washington driving 
the British from Boston, Washington crossing 
the Delaware on Christmas night and turn- 
ing the fortunes of the war, Washington sur- 
viving the terrible winter at Valley Forge, 
Washington leading the remarkable forced 
march from New York to Yorktown and tri- 
umphing there as the British played "The 
World Turn'd Upside Down;" Washington at 
Newburgh, as he fumbled for his glasses: "I 
have grown gray in your service and now 
find myself growing blind;" Washington 
taking the oath of office as first President of 
the Nation he had helped to bring into being; 
Washington even in Heaven, his triumphal 
entrance fully authenticated by the authori- 
tative Parson Weems. 

Washington looms like some God over that 
whole galaxy of Plutarchian heroes: when 
was any other Nation so fortunate in its 
heroes? There was John Adams, the "Atlas 
of Independence," and Thomas Jefferson 
writing the Declaration in that little room in 
Philadelphia he had rented from the brick- 
layer Graff, and going on from there to 
immortality. There was Tom Paine furiously 
dashing off Common Sense, which did so 
much to win over public opinion to the 
necessity of independence, and the vener- 
able Benjamin Franklin winning all hearts 
over in Paris, and winning French aid, too, 
and coming back at the age of 81 to add his 
prudence and his wisdom to the delibera- 
tions at the Constitutional Convention. For 
the pen was as mighty as the sword: the 
youthful Hamilton drafting so many of Wash- 
ington's papers and then drafting a good 
part of the Federalist Papers; James Madi- 
son pushing through the immortal Statute 
of Religious Freedom for Virginia and 
joining in with Hamilton to write the 
Federalist Papers; George Mason with his 
great Bill of Rights for Virginia, which be- 
came the model for the bills of rights of 
other States and of the United States, too. 
Nor must we forget the gentle Philip Freneau 
with his stirring poems, and Joel Barlow 
with his gargantuan Vision of Columbus, or 
the "American Farmer," Hector St. Jean de 
Crevecoeur, with those famous Letters, or 
Noah Webster already busy making an 
American language. 

How explain this outpouring of political 
genius — and political leadership — in the 
America of the Revolutionary generation? 
We have seen nothing like it since, nor for 
that matter has any nation. The practical 
explanation is that in the simple, rural 
America of that day there were few other 



outlets for genius than those offered by pub- 
lic service: after all, there was no court, no 
church, no aristocracy, no army or navy, no 
great universities or learned academies, no 
banks or commercial companies like the 
East India or the Hudson's Bay. Talent went, 
almost by default, into public life. A second 
practical explanation is that though the 
total adult white male population of America 
was very small — certainly well under one 
million — Americans, unlike the peoples of 
the Old World, used what they had. In 
France, Spain, the Italian and the German 
states, only nobles and aristocrats could 
expect to participate in public affairs on any 
high level, and in these countries there was 
no such thing as voting or participating in 
legislative assemblies. In Britain perhaps as 
many as 200,000 men had the vote — though 
not nearly that number exercised it — and 
access to public life was limited strictly to 
members of the upper classes. There is, too, 
a third reason that might be denominated 
practical, and that is the reason of neces- 
sity. Has any generation in our history been 
called upon to do more than this generation 
was required to do: win independence, set 
up State governments, write a constitution, 
create a Federal system, win the trans-Alle- 
gheny West and set up territorial govern- 
ments there, create a nation, and fabricate 
all those institutions that go to making the 
Nation strong and progressive? There is 
nothing like war for bringing out courage; 
there is nothing like emergency for bringing 
out ingenuity; there is nothing like challenge 
for bringing out character. 

But there was more to it than these practical 
considerations, important as they were. 
There was a common training in the classics 
— those of Greece and Rome and those of 
17th-century England. All of the Fathers 

knew Thucydides and Plutarch with their cel- 
ebration of civic virtue and of public service. 
All of them might have said, with the Rev. 
Jonathan Mayhew, "having been initiated in 
youth with the doctrines of civil liberty, as 
they are taught in such men as Plato, De- 
mosthenes, Cicero, and other persons among 
the ancients, and such as Sidney and Milton, 
Locke and Hoadley among the moderns, I 
liked them; they seemed rational." There 
was the deep sense of obligation to pos- 
terity, a note that runs through the whole of 
the public and private literature of the day. 

Let three examples suffice. Listen to Wash- 
ington's appeal at Newburgh: "You will, by 
the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion 
for posterity to say, when speaking of the 
glorious example you have exhibited to 
Mankind, 'had this day been wanting, the 
world had never seen the last stage of per- 
fection to which human nature is capable 
of attaining.' " Recall Tom Paine's plea for 
independence: " Tis not the concern of a 
day, a year, or an age; posterity are involved 
in the contest and will be more or less 
affected to the end of time." Ponder John 
Adams' touching letter to his wife when he 
had signed the great Declaration: "Through 
all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing 
light and glory. Posterity will triumph in that 
day's transaction, even although we should 
rue it, which I trust in God we shall not." 

As the 18th century identified God and Na- 
ture, so the Founding Fathers tended to 
identify Man and Mankind, and the present 
and Posterity. Their service was not to 
wealth but to the commonwealth; their obli- 
gation not merely to their own day or their 
own society but to Posterity. 

Parks and the Bicentennial 

Throughout the National Park System 
the Bicentennial will be a time of 
commemoration and celebration. 
More than 20 sites — historic places 
like Minute Man, Independence Hall, 
Adams Mansion, Cowpens, and 
Yorktown — are directly related to the 
story of the American Revolution. 
In these parks special programs, 
exhibits, living history performances, 
and demonstrations of antique skills 
and crafts will interpret for visitors 
the life and times of the Revolution- 
ary generation. In all national park 
areas, programs appropriate to the 
Bicentennial will be presented, 
placing new emphasis on local 
history and traditions and on the 
contributions a diverse people made 
to the American Nation. For 
Americans, and their guests from 
abroad, the Bicentennial will be an 
occasion to visit the places of scenic 
grandeur and historic significance 
that make up the American inherit- 
ance and to discover for themselves 
what is enduring — and relevant for 
today — in the American Revolution. 

The Department of the Interior As the 

Nation's principal conservation 
agency, the Department of the 
Interior has responsibility for most of 
our nationally owned public lands 
and natural resources. This includes 
fostering the wisest use of our land 
and water resources, protecting our 
fish and wildlife, preserving the 
environmental and cultural values of 
our national parks and historical 
places, and providing for the enjoy- 
ment of life through outdoor 
recreation. The Department assesses 
our energy and mineral resources and 
works to assure that their develop- 
ment is in the best interests of all 
our people. The Department also has 
a major responsibility for American 
Indian reservation communities and 
for people who live in island 
territories under U.S. administration. 

For sale by the Superintendent of Documents 

U S Government Printing Office Washington. DC 20402 

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